Friday, September 26, 2014

Avoiding Common Problems with Spring Bulbs

I did this post up for Hometalk and thought I might repeat it here as well:

Q: Squirrels are digging up and eating my tulips bulbs! What can I do?

There tend to be lots of squirrels looking for an easy meal in my backyard every fall. Here is what I have learned to do to prevent them from adding my tulips to the dinner menu:

1. Do not place your bulbs on the surface of the ground while you dig the hole to plant them. Squirrels have a good sense of smell. You might as well put up a sign, "Tulips planted here. Please dig." Instead place your tulips in a basket or plastic bucket while you work.

2. Don't make it easy for squirrels to dig up your bulbs. Plant tulips deeply. Forget the little hand trowel and go get a shovel. You are more likely to dig to the proper depth with a shovel. On average tulips should be planted to a depth of 6-8 inches. (As an added bonus tulips planted deeply are more likely to bloom reliably year to year.)

3. After you dig down and place your bulbs, backfill the hole and firm down the soil really well with your foot. Most squirrels will go for food buried just under the surface of the soil. If the little beggars do have the nerve to try to dig for your tulips, at least you have made it difficult for them by planting deeply and compacting the soil. Most squirrels will move on to much easier quarry.

4. Disguise the area where you planted your tulips by covering the surface with mulch or leaves as a final way to hide your buried treasure.

5. I have never resorted to repellents, but if you have squirrels that are determined pests, you may want to try an organic repellent (available at your local nursery). I have also read that red pepper flakes sprinkled on the surface of the soil are a great organic deterrent.

6. If all else fails, plant bulbs that squirrels don't like to eat. Examples include: daffodils, alliums, scilla and hyacinths. (Note: I have had squirrels dig up my daffodils and discard them uneaten on the surface of the soil, so I have also learned the hard way to plant my daffodils deeply.)

Do you have a great method of deterring squirrels from eating tulips bulbs? Please share in the comment section below!

Tulip 'Angelique'

Q: Last spring's bulbs produced only foliage with no flowers. Where did I go wrong?

1. Most tulips only bloom reliably for a year or two so you may have done nothing wrong. If you want a longer lifespan from tulip bulbs try Darwin or species tulips. Darwin hybrids not only have big, showy flowers, they are known to bloom from 5 to 7 years. And unlike their more flashy hybrid cousins, species tulips are long lived and will naturalize when planted in a sunny, well-drained spot.

2. Make sure to double check the light requirements before you plant your bulbs. Tulips, for instance, need full sun. Sunlight feeds the foliage and that energy is stored in the bulb to produce next spring's flower. If your tulips are planted in shade, the bulbs may not have stored sufficient food to make flowers.

3. Deadhead after flowering. If you don't remove spent blooms, tulips will put all their energy into producing seed instead of storing food for next year's flowers.

4. Do not remove foliage after the flowers fade. Allow the foliage to die down naturally so the bulbs will have a chance to store enough nutrients to produce next spring's blooms.

A mix of Daffodils and Narcissus from last May

5. Poor blooms on daffodils may mean that the bulbs have become crowded and need division. Dig up daffodil clumps following the spring bloom time, separate individual bulbs and replant them several inches apart.

6. As daffodil bulbs age the "mother" bulb multiplies each year. The mother bulb eventually dies and it sometimes takes the offspring bulbs a few years to reach flowering size. To encourage the young bulbs to mature, apply a granular high potash feed and liquid fertilizer each spring after flowering.

An Allium up close and personal

Q: Deer are treating my spring display of bulbs as an all-you-can-eat buffet. What can I do? 

Try planting bulbs that don't appeal to deer: grape hyacinth, Siberian Squill, daffodils or alliums.

Q: What should I look for when buying bulbs?

Look for firm bulbs that show no signs of being shrivelled or soft. The larger the bulb the larger the flower- is a good general rule.

Q: When is it too late to plant bulbs?

1. Ideally, I think it is a good idea to get your bulbs planted in September/October.  That being said, I notoriously snap up bulbs at clearance sales in late October and often get them into the ground as late as mid-November (my garden is Zone 6).
But when is a bargain not a bargain? Late fall weather is often unpredictable and there have been occasions when the ground has frozen before I could get my clearance bulbs into the ground. I learned to limit my clearance bulb purchases to only those I know I can plant immediately.

Q: Can I leave potted bulbs outside all winter?

This is another lesson I learned the hard way. Last year I left potted bulbs outdoors and by spring they all had turned into a soggy, rotten mess. In colder zones like mine, it is best to put potted bulbs in an unheated garage or shed. Keep an eye on them to make sure they are damp, but not wet. In warmer zones (Zone 8 or higher), you can leave them outdoors all winter.


Q: How can I force bulbs for inside the house?

Paperwhites are one of the easiest bulbs to force and do not require a period of chilling. In recent years, I find that most other types of spring bulbs are readily available in stores and are so darned affordable that I don't go to the bother of forcing them myself. If you do want to try to force your own however, most bulbs can be forced if you refrigerate them for a period of 10-15 weeks in a paper bag. When placing your bulbs in the fridge, make sure your bulbs are not stored near fruit or vegetables which can emit an ethylene gas that is harmful to bulbs.

Q: Can I replant forced bulbs outside in spring?

Most forced bulbs won't bloom again as they have used up all their energy. I have however, had some luck with forced hyacinths purchased in late winter. I remove flowers when they fade, keep them in a sunny spot and continue to water the foliage. When the weather warms up to above freezing, I move the hyacinth pots outside and let them acclimatize to the outdoor temperatures. Then I remove the bulbs and plant them in the garden. Some have come back the following year. Have you had any luck planting forced bulbs in your garden?

Please share any other bulb planting tips you may have! We'd all love to know what has 
worked in your garden.


  1. Wow thanks for all the great informative information! There are some great tips that will help me out a lot. Your flower pictures are beautiful as usual, over the top!! I have planted forced bulbs many times and most have lived and come back to rebloom again. Spring bulbs are the most exciting to watch grow. I guess we are all happy to see spring reappear .

  2. Our local deer failed to get the message about grape hyacinth and ate the lot.

  3. Thank you so very much for all of this wonderful information, Jennifer.
    It is truly so helpful.

  4. I am still trying to find success with planting bulbs in containers. I've suffered losses like you (where they freeze & turn to mush) both leaving them outside & in my garage. My garage is unheated so sometimes, during a really cold spell, it freezes in there too. This year I'm going to store a pot in my unheated basement but I'm wondering if they will get cold enough there? Oh the trials of trying to have a beautiful garden!!!

    1. I think your success in storing bulbs in the basement depends on how "unheated" it is Kathleen. I believe that the temperature must be around 40 degrees (4 C.) to force bulbs.

  5. Wow great advice....I do avoid tulips because of the critters especially the deer.

  6. Great advice, Jennifer. I'm sharing this on my Facebook page.
    Question: what do I do to get the squirrels not to eat the blooms. I hate seeing those empty stalks after the squirrels have had a feast.

    1. This is problem I've never had Heather. Funny because we have lots and lots of squirrels here, but they've never eaten my flowers.
      I wonder if a garlic spray might work? ( I have seen a recipe for one on Hometalk and have it clipped to one of my boards.) I'd give it a try and see if it might deter the little beggars.

  7. Excellent tips - I have nothing but grief with squirrels and jackrabbits so this is really valuable info.


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